The residents had now completed a full week of work in clinic (save for the half-day orientation on Monday, and the half-day yesterday) and it was now time for us to have some real fun, as if what we had been doing all week wasn’t. Since my very first visits here to FAME, we have always made sure that we took time to see the country and visit friends and, given that we’re smack in the middle of the Northern Tanzania Safari Circuit, that means visiting the parks. Tanzania is repeatedly voted the number one site for wildlife game viewing, and it would be a crime to have visited here and not to have seen at least one park as part of your stay. The town of Karatu is the last outpost on the road to the Serengeti and borders the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, or the NCA, boundary.
The NCA was developed as a dual use region as the Maasai had to be relocated with the formation of the Serengeti National Park back in 1951 and having that land set aside solely for the conservation of wildlife. The NCA, on the other hand, serves not only as a place for conservation of wildlife, but also as the home for a very large population of Maasai who live and graze their cattle there. Remember, Maasai are pastoralists, meaning that they only graze their animals, which they rely on for meat and milk as food, and any grains or other necessities must be purchased or supplied by the government. Without going into detail, as there are many stories about what is happening at present and it’s unclear what is actually true, the government is relocating the Maasai to the Tanga region of Tanzania in the northeast of the country. To say that things are not going smoothly would be a gross understatement.
The Ngorongoro Crater, which is a caldera, or a collapsed volcano, sits completely within the NCA and is the largest of several craters in the region. Empakai Crater, which is an hour or so north of Ngorongoro, is smaller and open for hiking to the bottom where there is a lake that nearly fills the floor and is home to large flocks of flamingoes. It is well worth the trip there and I have done it on several occasions, though with the new three-week rotation, we have run out of the extra weekend to do this.
Ngorongoro Crater is immense. It is the largest complete dry caldera in the world and is ten miles across and 2000 feet deep. More importantly, it contains vast herds of wildebeest and zebra that do not migrate as there is no need, along with large numbers of Cape buffalo, hippos, elephants, Thompson and Grant gazelle, eland, ostrich, and countless bird species. There are no giraffe on the crater floor as it is too steep for them to descend, and there are no crocodiles as there are no large rivers with moving water. Cheetahs have become hard to spot there, but there are leopards (also hard to spot) in the forest, and caracals, a medium cat, of which I have seen several. There is perhaps the largest concentration of lions in Africa here given the amount of prey and the fact that they do not migrate and are always around. The crater is perhaps best known throughout Africa as the home of the endangered black rhino that, through the incredible efforts of conservationists here in Tanzania, have made a tremendous come back and whose numbers continue to grow. The black rhino is also found in the Serengeti in several locations, but is concentrated in the crater, so odds are better to see one there. The white rhino, which is found in the south of Africa, is far more common and about twice the size of its northern cousin. Its name, White Rhino, is also a bit of a misnomer as it was actually named for the shape of its muzzle, which is wide as compared to that of the black, which is sharp. The Afrikaans word for “wide” was mistaken as white.
The immensity of the crater is difficult to describe and is its own ecosystem, often with different weather caused by clouds that are trapped within and then blow over the rim throughout the day. There is a road that goes around about 75% of the rim and the road we’ll take today is the same that is used to travel to the Serengeti, though we will turn off to descent into the crater. There are three entrance roads – the one-way descent road, the one-way ascent road, and then a two-way road on the opposite side of the crater which are all self-explanatory. Ascending over 2000 feet up the outside of the crater wall, the altitude of the rim ranges somewhere between 7000 and 8000 feet and can be very windy and cold. You enter the NCA through the Loduare Gate, which is where the tarmac ends as well. As a World Heritage Site, the crater is one of the crown jewels of Tanzania and, thus, is heavily protected by the government to the degree that the NCA is its own agency, separate from the other national parks and similar to the Serengeti, another of Tanzania’s jewels.
Loduare Gate opens at 6:30 am and, as it’s always advantageous to be there as early as possible, not only to beat the crowds, but also to get to the crater floor as early as possible to see the animals before the heat of the afternoon sun. With that in mind, I had set a tentative departure time of 6 am this morning as it typically takes about 30 minutes to get to the entry office to pay as well as the gate. Today, we were traveling in tandem with Pete, Amanda, and their two small children, Oliver, and Astrid. It was a cold and cloudy morning and, as we ascended just to the gate at the base of the crater wall, it became very misty and windy. As I walked into the office to take care of registration and payment, I could not help but to have an overwhelming sense of trepidation given my history of difficulties with their process of entry in the past. Last spring, I had no problems with entry, and I guess I should have known that was too good to be true. When I showed the clerk our vehicle registration for Turtle, which has private plates on it now and which took some time to make that happen, he immediately pointed to the fact that the vehicle was still registered to a safari company and that it didn’t matter whether the plates were private or commercial.
We were at a complete impasse, but the clerk was understanding and called Leonard, who then, at 7 am Sunday, worked his butt off to get us a booking number in the system which would then allow me to pay for the entrance. What should have been a simple process, though, turned out to take more than thirty minutes, all the while, dozens of safari vehicles were passing through the gate on their way to the crater. We eventually found the reservation number in the system but were then unable to pay as that part of the software was apparently down or slow at the moment. Thankfully, the clerk gave us an entry pass that would allow us to go down to the crater and then pay on our way out later this evening, though having to show the permit to enter to numerous rangers both at the gate and then at the descent road, no one seemed to understand just what to make of the permit so I had to explain it over and over to them. Regardless, we were now on our way and heading up to the crater rim.
During our time at the gate, though, the clouds had descended significantly, and it was now drizzling, so given that we would be climbing over 2000 feet to the crater rim, it was sure to be a wet and visually challenging ride up to the top. As we were preparing to get through the gate (of course, everybody and their mother wanted to look at our entry permit before they’d let us through), I nonchalantly flipped on the windshield wipers only to discover that they were not working at all. It wasn’t that they were working poorly and needed to be replaced, but rather they were completely dead and not moving at all. Not wishing to spend any more time at the gate than I already had, I just chose to soldier on and begin the long and winding ascent to the top. As we were essentially traveling through the clouds, the mist continued to build so that by the time we were nearing the top, the windshield was pretty well covered with moisture and significantly impairing my view of the road.
The drive up to the crater rim is probably my favorite drive anywhere I’ve ever been. You are ascending through a primordial forest of gigantic prehistoric trees reaching their best to find the sun and climbing up from the depths of the canyons we’re driving beside as we slowly make our way to the top. At nearly every turn, elephants have carved into the rock ledges with their tusks in search of the minerals they require for their nutrition. As we reached the rim, there were two things that were quickly apparent. First, stopping at the overlook for a view into the crater was totally useless considering that the visibility was now a matter of meters. Second, not having functional wipers was going to really suck. We had stopped once (the road is very narrow and treacherous) on our way up to clean the windshield, but it was now clear this was going to be a real issue as the clouds were becoming more and more dense as we drove. It was also incredibly cold.
The rim road is considered treacherous in the best of circumstances and considering it is a narrow, two-way highway that is the only way into and out of the Serengeti and across the northern part of the country, this was not a great situation. Trucks and large buses traverse this region along with all the safari vehicles such as ours, and it is not infrequent that a collision occurs with multiple injuries and even deaths. Most of these come to FAME and it is a frequent reminder that rushing to get anywhere on these roads is never a good idea. With all that in mind, I did my best to maintain a slow, steady, and safe pace, stopping frequently to wipe the windshield with Whitney’s donated sweatshirt. Thankfully, Saidi was with us to do most of the wiping, though LJ did climb out of her front door window in front of a handful of Maasai who were probably wondering what these crazy mzungu were doing. We had absolutely no relief from the clouds and decreased visibility until just before we reached the descent road on the backside of the crater.
It was incredibly windy and cold as we looked down into the crater and could see the bottom for the first time today, so much so that we left the roof down for the steep descent to the floor. Finally reaching the floor, the top was popped, and we were now in full safari mode and ready to explore. There were a number of vehicles at the first junction which typically means they have spotted something and, sure enough, there was a lone female lion initially lying, and then slinking through the brush with a group of zebras in the near distance. She eventually made her way into the taller grass where we lost her, though, and we were then on our way. I had decided to follow Pete in their Toyota Prado and we drove in the opposite direction I normally go, but to honest, there really hadn’t been any firm reason for that. We looped around through the Lengai Forest, which is the best place to find close elephants, the rare leopard (I’ve never seen one in the crater), and lots of monkeys – mostly baboons and vert monkeys.
Having made it through the forest, the next stop was going to be the hippo pool. Hippos are pretty opportunistic regarding their homes but given that the crater floor is typically very dry at this time of year and even more so now, I figured that the hippos would most likely be found at the most permanent site for water in the crater which would typically be their normal pool. Last spring, this region was complete flooded and difficult to get through, but not so this visit and, as expected, there were several dozens of them in the main pool and a number of others lying out of the water and in excellent view. The number of birds near the hippo pool was also incredible and there were dozens and dozens of different species all in the same vicinity. It was a birders paradise and something I know Dan Licht would have loved.
Following the hippo pool, we made a long loop on our way to the lunch spot, eventually arriving alongside a beautiful lake and very large marshy area. There are many hippos here, but the real sight is the Marabou storks that hang out looking for scraps and the black shouldered kites that soar above constantly looking for an unsuspecting tourist eating their lunch so they can snatch a sandwich or piece of chicken right out of their hand. Though I usually recommend eating in the vehicle, Amanda and Pete seemed to be a bit more adventurous, so we joined them out on the grassy area by the lake along with the storks and the kites flying overhead. It’s a bit eerie as you sit or stand eating your sandwich and watching out of the corner of your eye as to whether you’re about to be dive bombed by a pretty large bird that is agile enough to steal your food in a split second without even touching you. It is also a very fun pastime to watch as those unsuspecting individuals whose safari guides have chosen not to warn them be suddenly surprised by a diving bird with a three-foot wingspan deftly pluck their lunch from right in front of their face.
We had packed out lunch which consisted of peanut butter and jam sandwiches along with our hot pack dinner containers that we had filled with cut up pineapple and watermelon. Unfortunately, the hot packs, which are about the size of a bowling ball, acting as just that in the duffel we had placed them in along with the sandwiches. Many of the sandwiches, which had been wrapped in flimsy plastic wrap, were totally destroyed and what was left were pieces of sandwiches for some and others smeared to inside of the duffel. Meanwhile, the fruit remained perfectly intact, which was good as that in addition to the fractured sandwiches is all that we had for lunch.
After lunch, we took a long drive up to the river area near the two-way road and then around towards Engitati Hill, and back to the shores of Lake Magadi. As we were departing back through Lengai Forest, we could see streaks of rain in the far distance inside the crater, but thankfully, we made it through the day without a shower as we still had the issue of the broken wipers. We headed up the steep ascent road back to the rim road and then to the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge to visit with my friend Ladislaus and for the others to see this amazing resort. Ladislaus has hosted us for coffee for the last 4 or 5 years and it’s great for the others to see this amazing lodge that I was lucky enough to spend two nights in last April as Ladislaus’s guest. To say that it was a remarkable visit then would not do it justice. It was simply spectacular. While having our coffee today, I was so happy to see Marcel, who had been our butler for the two days of our visit.
We left the lodge with plenty of time to spare as the Loduare Gate closes at 6 pm and, if you’re not through the gate when it closes, you get to spend the night in the NCA along with the privilege of paying for another day there. In the past, I have raced down the road from the rim to make it to the gate with a minute to spare, but today we had time enough to stop at the overlook for the residents to see the view as it was covered in clouds in the morning. At the gate, I paid for our day with no complications this time and we were on our way home. Fien, the resident joining us who is from Belgium arrived to FAME today shortly before our return. We’re looking forward to getting to know her and having her work with us for the next three weeks. Meanwhile, dinner on Sunday is on our own, so we ordered food to be delivered from the Lilac café here on campus. It only took an hour and a half to arrive but was delicious when it did. Remember, this is Africa time here.